Putting Up a Billboard, Live
On the one hand, it's pretty tough to understand why Ephraim Kadish is smiling. As the vice president of culinary affairs and executive chef for Billboard Live, a multimillion-dollar dining-and-entertainment project in South Beach that has been in development so long it's almost reached Shore Club status, his responsibilities are tremendous. Technically he is overseeing the creation of two restaurants -- a casual/upscale seafood eatery called Breez and a fine-dining global place named Parallel -- while designing kitchens, writing recipes, and training staff.
But in reality, along with president Mitchell Chait, vice president of operations Christian Dickens, and club director Rodolphe (whom Kadish simply refers to as "Club Guy"), he's the kahuna. The big cheese. The one in charge. Which means that even the tiniest details, like whether the bill for the locks that will secure the outdoor loveseats has been paid by check or is COD, are frequently brought to Kadish. And imagine how the details add up when you consider the scope of Billboard Live -- a 40,000-square-foot, four-level space that will include the restaurants, several bars and lounges, a dance club, a members-only club, and a stage for some of the world's top performers.
On the other hand, Kadish's ready grin and mild manner are easy to figure. Billboard Live's upper three levels, which were a maze of scaffolding only about six weeks ago, are fairly close to being completed. The bars have been built. The complicated wiring is in place. Parallel's kitchen is being set up. The floors are being put down. The end to buzz saws and shrill electric drills is in reasonable sight. As for the first floor, Kadish, who obviously has nerves that match the steel of the safety railing that rims the upper-level walkways, is preparing himself for a beginning. Breez, featuring a wide variety of sushi styles, including stuffed and folded sushi as well as pressed and molded sushi, debuts June 15.
Kadish also realizes that since he's the one in charge, he sets the tone. "I use no harsh words. Everything has to be positive. If people want to come to work, that's half the battle," this veteran of the restaurant scene emphasizes.
Kadish's name may not be familiar to South Floridians, but his former restaurants certainly are. The erstwhile corporate executive chef of China Grill Management, he operated establishments including the original China Grill and Asia de Cuba in New York; Blue Door and Tuscan Steak in Miami; and Red Square and Rum Jungle in Las Vegas, to name a few. In fact, Kadish tells me, "In the last seven years I've opened twenty-one restaurants. Seven of those were opened within five months of each other." He French-inhales a burning cigarette and shakes his head in a kind of rueful wonder.
What he doesn't mention is the astounding amount of money he managed from those properties: more than $50 million in food sales alone. But while Kadish is quite willing to acknowledge his work ethic (when he opened China Grill in Miami he worked 90 days straight in the kitchen without a sous chef), he's not bragging. He's merely stating facts, some of which cause him to reach for another butt. Like his current fifteen-hour days, which leave only a smidgen of time to spend with his wife and their three young sons, all of whom are under the age of three. (Kadish also has an eight-year-old son from another marriage.) Like the relationship with his former employer Jeffrey Chodorow that Kadish describes as friendly. Like the negotiations with Quik Park, the valet service that wants to charge him twenty dollars per spot and won't promise him parking attendants that speak English. Kadish and company bargain Quik Park down but can't budge 'em on the English question, so Kadish will post a hostess out front with the valets to make sure all customers are greeted in a language they understand.
Exhale. Flick the ash. Smile.
His experience as a corporate chef puts him in good standing with Billboard Live, because Kadish understands intimately the oxymoronic rule of the restaurant business: While a new concept can't be rushed, you also need to strike while the cast iron is hot. Which is why Breez, which was completed design-wise about a month ago and whose food and wine menus are being finalized virtually at the last minute, will open before Parallel, the concert hall, or the club is ready to receive visitors. It doesn't faze Kadish, who cheerfully smiles and mixes a metaphor: "We're opening one arm of a whole body that has to stand alone."
Breez's concept isn't complicated: fresh seafood, both raw and cooked, with lots of Japanese influences. Communal tables inside, with iridescent banquettes that stream rainbow colors, fading from blues to greens to purples. Outdoor seating to take advantage of -- concept implied -- the ocean breezes. A bar shaped like a conch shell, where patrons can nestle in the curves. And a reasonably priced menu, hence the insistence on valet parking (a necessity at this location on the corner of Fifteenth Street and Ocean Drive) that doesn't cost more than the average dinner. "Dining should be a breeze. I think that these days we put too much pressure on people when they go out to dine," Kadish stresses. "Here things will be simplified.... We're going to premix the soy sauce with the wasabi and serve it in little pitchers. And if there's something somebody wants that isn't on the menu, we'll make it for them.
"The key to a concept is the thought process," Kadish continues. "But once you get there, you have to be flexible." To that end Kadish wrote and developed approximately 400 recipes over a six-month period. He hired his core chefs -- Ira, Jason, and Roy -- and brought them into the open kitchen, which includes a sushi bar that is hazily screened from the customer's view by a beaded curtain, about six weeks before the projected opening. Then the four men set out to test and retool the recipes over and over again. "Everything is about repetition. We do it until we get it right," Kadish explains. "Then we do it again."
Of those 400 recipes, about 200 to 300, Kadish estimates, will work. A final 80 will make it on to the menu. Hopefully one of them will be the monkfish, gently deep-fried nuggets that are scattered around a salad of field greens topped with smoked bacon. It's one of the best dishes that I was fortunate enough to sample, and it's also one of the most finished ones. "This is perfect now," Kadish tells his crew, pointing his fork at it for emphasis. To me, he confides, "Yesterday it just wasn't quite right." And, he notes, just because a dish is truly good doesn't mean it will be a success. "We'll have to wait until we open and take a look. I like the monkfish. You like the monkfish. But will it sell? I don't know."
If it doesn't sell, of course, it'll be replaced by one of the remaining recipes, most of which Kadish will put into rotation as specials. Some will be scrapped: too costly, too time-consuming, too labor-intensive. Others will be reworked, like the fillet of fish, pan-fried and served over a stew of truffled white beans. When I tried it, it was halibut; at the moment it's being hawked in the press materials as rum-marinated black cod. "We guesstimate," Kadish offers by way of explanation. In short everything is subject to change, not only up until the opening but even after it.
Indeed at least one of the dishes to ace the auditions turns out to be a sheer accident. Sushi will be a main draw here, and Kadish is preparing it in different ways: stuffed into egg crêpes; pressed into multiple layers between rice and nori; served with the basic materials for customers to roll their own. He spares no expense for his staff to practice the art. Six weeks before opening Kadish is spending $700 to $800 per day on food costs alone, and two weeks before, when the waitstaff appears to taste the food and learn the script describing the dishes, he and his partners are laying out $1500 daily. (For Breez alone opening costs will total a quarter of a million bucks, he figures.) But no one likes to waste food, so during one session Jason mixes a batch of guacamole from leftover avocados. Lacking tortilla chips, he fries some nori to scoop up the guac. The results are homely; mashed avocados lack an aesthetic sense to begin with, but deep-fried seaweed is about as handsome as Woody Allen on a plate. But they taste terrific. "Could we sell these?" Kadish wonders aloud.
"Only if you prepare the customer for the way they look," I offer, amazed by my own temerity. "These things are seriously ugly." (During my first session with the guys, Kadish had me a don chef's jacket and apron and actually cook some of the recipes; I turned out an egg crêpe before I decided I was too intimidated to continue, and besides, who can take notes with burned fingers?) Thus "Jason's ugly chips" were born, and you can order them at the bar. Trust me, they'll go great with a martini or one of the drinks from Kadish's "ade program" -- lemonade, limeade, cranade.
Meanwhile until the opening the chefs continue to practice, cooking about fifteen dishes per day. By the first week in June, the kitchen staff will have cooked each dish about 30 times. At the moment one main course, a two-and-a-half-pound chicken stuffed with carrots, celery, and herbs, is giving everyone just a little trouble. The pure flavor of the poultry is stunning, but the stuffing contains too much rosemary, and Kadish worries that the chickens, roasted six to a pan, are not of equivalent size, which could render some of them dry. He also debates adding a sauce. It doesn't need it, but the customer might think the plate is too empty. He instructs Roy to reduce some of the pan juices, and it's instantly apparent that the natural jus is the ideal accompaniment. All that's left is the dilemma of how to present the chicken. Half or whole? On the bone or pulled? When I return to visit Breez a week or so later, the decision has been made: The breast will be sliced and piled high, and a leg will garnish it. As for the variances in weight, Kadish has decided to grade the chickens himself. Those that come within a few ounces of the target weight will be put into Ira's capable hands. The others will be kicked upstairs to Parallel, or taken home to his twin toddlers and their baby brother.
As for Kadish he's spending fewer hours in the kitchen and more time meeting with vendors, ordering table linens, finalizing the wine list, and basically tending to a hundred other details that will come up one by one -- or perhaps five by five. His partners are doing the same, overseeing the last of the construction and wrapping plans for the opening acts. (No one's talking yet, but rumors of who will play the opening party range from the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley -- which tells you how accurate rumors are.)
And after that? "We start the process all over again with Parallel," Kadish admits. His chef de cuisine will be Frank Jeannetti, who made a name for himself at Nemo and the Biltmore, and the pair will work in the kitchen together, doing what Kadish calls "live theater." Parallel, named for the fifteenth parallel on which Ocean Drive rests, will draw inspiration from all the nations through which the latitude passes, including South Africa and Indonesia. As a concept it's fairly innovative. As a work in progress, it sounds like trial and error, an assessment Kadish agrees with. He doesn't have much time for mistakes, either, since the kitchen isn't finished yet and the projected opening of Parallel is early July. "It'll be a lot of work," Kadish notes happily. He lights a cigarette, takes a deep puff, and smiles.
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